In a GOP debate packed with absurdities, it’s hard to pick just one to focus on. Newt Gingrich’s suggestion that we legalize only undocumented immigrants that “pay taxes and go to a local church” (repeated twice, just to let you know he’s serious) could top the list. Or maybe Mitt Romney’s comment that “we use the Constitution and criminal law for those people who commit crimes, but for those who commit war, we will use a very different kind of law” should get the lead.
Those moments aside, let’s focus on a point Romney made that “there have been dozens of attacks that have been thwarted by our security forces.” Heritage Foundation’s Ed Meese during a question made a similar statement that “at least 42 terrorist attacks aimed at the United States have been thwarted since 9/11. Tools like the Patriot Act have been instrumental in finding and stopping terrorists.”
Let’s look at these claims a little closer. First, there are the seven terrorist plots that the FBI planned, funded, and heroically stopped just before they could be carried out. These plots include the 2011 attempted attack on the Saudi Ambassador by an Iranian used car salesman from Texas. In similar phony FBI plot in 2009, federal agents approached two New York Muslims with a plan to shoot a shoulder-fired grenade launcher at a Pakistani diplomat. They agreed to help launder money to fund the project. Now they are in prison, and the Bureau gets to play hero.
In 2009, the FBI recruited Hosam Maher Husein Smadi to place a fake bomb in a Dallas building. The same year, the heroic FBI saved us again from another FBI recruit who was convinced to bomb the Washington Metro. Later in 2009, the FBI busted up the so-called “Synagogue terrorism plot,” a plan to blow up New York City Jewish centers and shoot down planes at a NY National Guard base. In her sentencing decision, Manhattan Federal Court Judge Colleen McMahon explains this case well, “The essence of what occurred here is that a government understandably zealous to protect its citizens from terrorism came upon a man both bigoted and suggestible, one who was incapable of committing an act of terrorism on his own. It created acts of terrorism out of his fantasies of bravado and bigotry and then made those fantasies come true.”
In 2011, the FBI also “saved” Americans from Rezwan Ferdaus. The New York Times explains, “undercover F.B.I. agents who had been talking to Mr. Ferdaus for months provided him with some of the necessary components for his planned attack, including six assault rifles, three grenades, 25 pounds of C-4 plastic explosives and even an F-86 remote-controlled aircraft. ‘The public was never in danger from the explosive devices,’ Carmen M. Ortiz.” Great, we weren’t in any danger, so why did you set this all up again?
In 2010, the FBI pulled the same trick with Mohamed Osman Mohamud. As Glenn Greenwald reported of that plot, “The FBI found some very young, impressionable, disaffected, hapless, aimless, inept loner; created a plot it then persuaded/manipulated/entrapped him to join, essentially turning him into a Terrorist; and then patted itself on the back once it arrested him for having thwarted a ‘Terrorist plot’ which, from start to finish, was entirely the FBI’s own concoction.”
Aside from these FBI plots, there’s the Christmas Day/Underwear bomber who tried to light an explosive on a plane, failed and was stopped by passengers, not the government. Similarly, the “shoe-bomber” was stopped by flight attendants and passengers. Then there’s Raja Khan–the taxi cab driver–who was arrested for sending money back to Pakistan (although the FBI claimed he also wanted to blow up a stadium, he was never charged). We also have the five Virginia men who were arrested in Pakistan and charged with “supporting al Qaida.” Of course, as the Washington Post reported, “Law enforcement officials also said they had no evidence that the men had been trained at terror camps or were planning an attack.” (If you don’t think this counts as a “terrorist plot,” you haven’t been reading the Daily Beast who compiled a 45 plot list).
Jose Padilla was another grave threat stopped by our all-powerful government. The Judge who convicted Padilla gave him a lesser sentence because “there was no evidence linking Mr. Padilla and two co-defendants to specific terrorism acts anywhere. There is no evidence that these defendants personally maimed, kidnapped or killed anyone in the United States or elsewhere… There was never a plot to overthrow the United States government.”
The cases go on and on like this. The “Buffalo Six”, for example, were similarly never part of any plot to attack the U.S. and were convicted on the vague “support to terrorism” charge. In fact, it seems that the Heritage Foundation (in their words, “the first and only organization tracking thwarted terrorist attacks against the United States”) considers any terrorist arrest by the government at all “a thwarted terrorism attack. They even include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed–the 9/11 mastermind who carried out more than one attack before he was captured (somehow that’s a “thwarted attack”?).
In fact, the standard is even lower than that. Your charge need not even be terrorism-related directly. For example, Paul and Maria Rockwood make the Heritage list. The Rockwoods compiled a list of 15 people who they would like to see dead for “desecrating Islam.” Of course, “neither [was] accused of taking any steps toward harming the people on the list,” and since naming people you’d like to see dead is not a crime, they were convicted of “making false statements during a terrorism investigation,” a crime of extremely dubious legality since suspects are rarely informed of a “terrorism investigation.”
Some threats have been real, and some have actually been stopped by intelligence, but those are rare exceptions, and they have been universally overblown and used as propaganda for much more heinous crimes by the U.S. government abroad (like the assassination of U.S. citizens). More to the point of Romney and Meese’s statement, no terrorist (let alone terrorist attack) has been shown to be stopped because of the powers given to the government from the PATRIOT Act. If anything, the massive waste created by spying on people without probable cause makes terrorism easier.